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Lots and lots of free books at The Free Book Incident in Seattle

Tom found seven books at The Free Book Incident in Pioneer Square. (KIRO Radio/Tom Tangney)

Imagine a bookstore without a cash register. Imagine a library with a no-return policy. Imagine a book exchange without any exchanges. In others words, imagine a place where thousands of books are simply free for the taking. That’s what’s happening in a storefront in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Two thousand books, stacked on dozens of shelves, being pored over by anybody who wanders in, be they neighbors, or tourists, or workers on their lunch hour. Almost everyone who stops by leaves with at least one or two or 50 books. And again, let me repeat, they’re free.

It’s all part of a month-long art installation called The Free Book Incident, put on by a local architecture firm and a local bookseller.

The idea is to create a space for “exploration, engagement, ideas, activity, conversation – and ultimately, alchemy – all of it generated by the decommodification of books.” Whatever. All I know is there are lots and lots of free books for anybody who wants them.

We’re not just talking about a bunch of crummy books. The stock is typical of the kind of random books you’d find in any used bookstore – lots of hardbacks, travel books, histories, and biographies, novels and poetry and a smattering of art books.

My daughter Kate and I paid a visit to The Free Book Incident and, of course, loved it. I didn’t notice any “alchemy” happening but a kind of anticipatory nostalgia for bookstores did wash over me.

With the demise of the printed word visible on the horizon, this installation served to bring home – with more urgency than ever – just how endangered brick-and-mortar bookstores really are, and with them, one of the great joys in life: browsing. I wouldn’t be surprised if, fifty years from now, the only used bookstores will be permanent exhibits inside a museum.

The Free Book Incident storefront is located one block south of Occidental Square, is open 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and runs through the middle of next month.

As for our visit, Kate walked out with four items, including a nice hardback biography of Scotty, the daughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and a 1958 analysis of the Communist System written by a Yugoslavian dissident.

I felt proud for limiting myself to only seven books: a couple of biographies of Parisian writers (Huysmans and Fargue, an oversize book about the history of New York City seen through the eyes of the NYCFD, the script for the one-act musical Scrooge, a collection of 80 small Manet prints, a psychological and literary analysis called Women, Love, and Power, and a gorgeous art book about the Medici Chapel in Florence.

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